Jeanne Calment holds the world record for the longest confirmed lifespan. She lived in Arles, France, and claimed to have met Vincent van Gogh at the age of 13 when he came into her father’s shop in 1888 to buy coloured pencils. She found him to be, “Dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable.” She outlived her daughter and grandson by several decades. In 1965 she signed a deal to sell her apartment to lawyer André-François Raffray on a contingency contract. Then aged 47, he agreed to pay her 2,500 francs a month until she died. However, he died before she did, at 77 from cancer, and his widow was obliged to continue the payments – which ended up far exceeding the value of the apartment. Calment used to say to them that she was competing with Methuselah.
She was 94 when man first walked on the moon, and lived on her own until the age of 110, when she moved into a nursing home having become blind and nearly deaf. Her mind was however still intact – until her death at the age of 122 she was sharp as a knife.
The assumption of the medics was that she benefitted from extraordinary genes. Her father lived until six days shy of 93 and her brother François lived to the age of 97. Although genes probably played a part, there were also other aspects to her long life we can learn from.
Her husband’s wealth made it possible for her not to have to work; instead she lived a leisured lifestyle playing tennis, cycling, swimming, roller-skating, piano and going to the opera. Swimming in particular is a sport practised by many centenarians. At the age of 85 she took up fencing, proving that not sitting around waiting for death but developing new interests irrespective of age is a factor in life extension. The fact she continued to cycle until the age of 100 indicates regular exercise contributed to her longevity. It is also likely she suffered from very little stress. Not working is not an option for most of us, but it is nonetheless significant that she avoided all the diseases of later life while having a lot of fun. Managing stress through thought selection and intelligent use of music, massage/meditation and leisure is crucial to staying ageless.
She ascribed her long life to a diet rich in olive oil and garlic, which has been shown to help prevent arthritis, heart disease, hypertension and lung cancer among other things. She ate chocolate every day – today chocolate is lauded for its tremendous antioxidant potential. It lowers cholesterol, prevents cognitive decline and reduces the risk of cardiovascular problems. She also had a minor vice – a pêché mignon as the French say – port and a cigarette after her meal. Allowing oneself pleasurable things in moderation releases endorphins – or in lay terms, makes life worth living, proving the old adage that a little bit of what you fancy does you good. These days smokers can use e-cigarettes and enjoy the pleasure of nicotine without the risks of tobacco. As she reached her 110th birthday she took to saying, “God has forgotten me”. Her recipe for long life is telling – fun and laughter, or put another way, a positive outlook and developing the ability to avoiding casting oneself in the role of victim. When asked how she saw the future she replied with her famous sense of humour, “Short”.
On her 122nd birthday on 21 February 1997 she decided not to make any more public appearances as her health had deteriorated. The French gerontologist Jean-Marie Robine said this “allowed her to die as the attention had kept her alive”. He also said perhaps in a century everyone will live to 100.
Attitudes to ageing continue to change and medical research is unstoppable. Jeanne Calment died with a sound mind, but no one could claim she did not look her age. She was blind and almost deaf. Our goal is not to extend life to live it in feeble old age, but to live an active, healthy life to 100 and beyond.
After four and a half billion heart beats, her heart stopped on August 4th of the same year.